For nearly two decades, Mary M. Sweeney Scafuri was the "go-to" person at the Allegheny County coroner's office who comforted families in times of sorrow, aided police in their investigations and kept order at tense coroner's inquests.
Mrs. Scafuri, who used her maiden name Mary Sweeney in her professional life, rose to the position of chief deputy coroner and was invaluable to those investigating homicides and drug cases in the 1980s and 1990s, detectives said.
"She was so accommodating and so knowledgeable about the process," recalled retired Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Ronald Freeman, who oversaw the city's homicide squad. "Anything you needed Mary either got it or knew where to get it.
"And her personality was so exceptional. The morgue is a house of death, but she was just a bright light in that institution."
Mrs. Scafuri, 53, died Monday in her Oakmont home from a brain tumor first diagnosed in August.
The fifth oldest of nine siblings, Mrs. Scafuri grew up in Morningside. She attended St. Raphael School in Morningside and Peabody High School until her senior year when she went to Aurora, Colo., and graduated from a high school there in 1978.
Upon returning to Pittsburgh, she acquired a job as a clerk-secretary in the family division of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. Then Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht hired her as a clerk in the county morgue where she worked under several coroners and moved up over the years to secretary, to deputy coroner and finally assistant chief deputy coroner.
"I remember her as a very nice, pleasant, sweet young lady," Dr. Wecht said. "She performed her duties in a competent fashion and was a good, solid, hardworking, loyal employee.
"[Her advancement] shows that she worked hard and deserved what she earned."
For retired Pittsburgh police narcotics detectives Barry Fox, Raoul Rapneth and Claudia Salerno, Mrs. Scafuri was instrumental in their investigation of the infamous China White case in 1988. In that notorious case, 18 people in the region overdosed and died from injecting 3-methylfentanyl, a synthetic drug that was sold on the street as an extremely strong batch of heroin. The overdoses, including scores of non-fatal ones, continued until the source of the drug, a Calgon chemist and his accomplice were identified and apprehended.
"She was a perfect liaison," Mr. Fox said. "Whatever she could provide us, she did. It's important to have a go-to person on a high-level investigation like that, especially with all the deaths the case involved.
"Mary was beyond helpful. She went above and beyond because it was important to the community."
"She made things go a lot easier and much quicker," Mr. Rapneth said. "She was the person who could cut through the red tape. She was absolutely instrumental to us getting information as quickly as possible."
In her position, Mrs. Scafuri brought compassion and comfort to numerous families in their time of sorrow, said Daniel Sweeney of Oakmont, one of her brothers. That was evident in her tireless work in the wake of the Sept. 8, 1994, crash of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell that killed 132 people. She was among the workers who volunteered for the gruesome, but necessary, task of searching for human remains so they could be identified and turned over to their loved ones.
"She literally lived on the Air Force base out there in one of the hangars," Mr. Sweeney said. "Finding body parts and valuables, tagging and marking and helping retrieve them -- it took a lot out of her emotionally but she did it for the families. She wanted to try to make sure everyone was accounted for because she felt it was important that every family had complete closure.
"She was a great person. That's the way she was at the coroner's office -- she made sure the families of loved ones got their due respect."
Upon leaving the coroner's office, she held various positions such as working as a clerk in a jewelry store and a state liquor store; serving as assistant director of the Riverview Community Action Corp. in Oakmont, and as a clerk in various district courts until her illness.
In addition to her brother Dan Sweeney, she is survived by her husband, Lawrence A. Scafuri Jr.; her mother, Vivian Colligan Sweeney of Oakmont; four sisters, Jeaninne Sweeney Payne of Los Angeles, Grace A. Sweeney-Mauer of Springfield, Ill., and Theresa Sweeney Creighan and Joan Fuscia, both of Oakmont; and two other brothers, Jim Sweeney of Springdale and Mike Sweeney of Oakmont.
A blessing service was held Tuesday at Burket-Truby Funeral Home in Oakmont. The family suggests memorials be made to a charity in Mrs. Scafuri's name.
Michael A. Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968.